Kaiser Wilhelm II’s Britishness (And Left Arm)


On January 27, 1859 Queen’s Victoria’s eldest daughter, Victoria, gave birth to her first child at the Crown Prince’s Palace in Berlin. The birth was difficult: There was a delay in alerting doctors that the princess was in labor, doctors were hesitant to physically examine her and the baby was in breach. After a long and complicated labor, during which the lives of both mother and child were in danger, a son was delivered.

Unfortunately, it soon became clear that the baby’s left arm had been badly injured at birth due to Erb’s palsy, a condition that causes paralysis from nerve  damage. Victoria, known as “Vicky” to her family, and her husband, Prince Frederick of Prussia, “Fritz,” were horrified – delivering a less than physically perfect heir to the Prussian throne was viewed as a personal failure by Vicky and raised concerns about the ability of their son to thrive in a masculine, militant court atmosphere.

The baby was christened Wilhelm and known as “Willy” within the family. And despite rehabilitative exercises and correcting instruments, Wilhelm’s left arm would always be weaker and shorter than his right, by about 15 centimeters. As an adult he would attempt to conceal the condition by holding objects in his left hand or arranging his arms in such a way as to make his left arm appear longer. Coats and jackets were specially tailored to raise the left pocket.

Vicky in 1859, the year of Wilhelm’s birth

Today, historians have hypothesized that the disability affected Wilhelm’s emotional development, causing him to over-compensate through aggressiveness and competitiveness. And certainly, those that are familiar with the trajectory of Wilhelm’s life leading up to World War I, can see how that might be the case. Some doctors have also theorized that the traumatic birth may have deprived Wilhelm of oxygen for a few seconds, causing lasting neurological damage.

Either way, Wilhelm’s personality would certainly lead to erratic behavior throughout his life, and his relationship with is parents was uneasy from the start. He would come to wholeheartedly reject the liberal politics of both Fritz and Vicky, and shun the British-centric outlook with which Vicky viewed the world. Wilhelm, who, in many ways, was meant to personify his maternal grandfather’s, Albert of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha, master plan to create sympathetic British outposts throughout Western Europe, but especially Germany, ultimately led to its failure. Instead he sympathized with his conservative  paternal grandfather, Kaiser Wilhelm I, and took a “Germany first” approach to his politics.

Wilhelm with his father, the future Frederick III, at the age of three in 1862

His relationship with his British heritage is intriguing, though. He hero-worshipped his grandmother, Queen Victoria, of whom he was the first grandchild, and he remained competitive throughout adulthood with his “Uncle Bertie,” the future Edward VII. Simultaneously reverent of and impressed by the reach and power of the British Empire, he also resented its place in the hierarchy of 19th century European power.

As historian David Fromkin wrote of the Kaiser in his 2007 book, “The King and the Cowboy: Theodore Roosevelt and Edward the Seventh, Secret Partners“:

“From the outset, the half-German side of him was at war with the half-English side. He was wildly jealous of the British, wanting to be British, wanting to be better at being British than the British were, while at the same time hating them and resenting them because he never could be fully accepted by them.”

Certainly this played out painfully with his British mother. After the death of his father in 1888, Wilhelm would look to purge his court of anything or anyone associated with his parents. Indeed, he made it clear that he desired that Vicky leave Germany altogether in her widowhood, but Vicky instead built a new palace, Friedrichshof, and surrounded herself with like-minded liberal thinkers displaced by the new Kaiser.

Schloss Friedrichshof, now Schlosshotel Kronberg

In 1900, upon recognizing that she was terminally ill, Vicky would launch a secret operation to ferret out of Germany hundreds of letters in which she expressed concern over the personality and mentality of her son once he held political power. The letters were returned to Great Britain by her godson, Frederick Ponsoby, private secretary of Edward VII. Edited versions of the letters were later published as a book in 1928.

Wilhelm, for his part, was eventually forced to step down from the German throne at the close of World War I. His abdication was announced in November 1918, immediately after which he left his beloved Germany for exile in the Netherlands. He died there in 1941 at his home, Huis Doorn.

Kaiserpaar im Haus Doorn
Kaiser Wilhelm II and his second wife, Hermine Reuss of Greiz, at Huis Doorn in 1933

From more, see From Normandy to Windsor

4 thoughts on “Kaiser Wilhelm II’s Britishness (And Left Arm)

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